John Knox by Jane Dawson

john knoxGod’s Watchman…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In Scotland, John Knox is thought of as a misogynistic, hellfire-and-damnation preaching, old killjoy, who is responsible for the fairly joyless version of Protestantism that has blighted our country for hundreds of years. Well, that’s how I think of him anyway! Father of the Scottish Reformation, he is notorious for being the author of ‘The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women’. In this new biography, Jane Dawson sets out, not so much to overturn this impression of Knox, but to show that there was more to him than this. She tells us that new material has recently been uncovered amongst the papers of Christopher Goodman, a fellow Reformed preacher and long-term friend of Knox. This material, she suggests, throws a different light on his personality, while changing some of the facts known about his life.

Dawson writes very well, with no unnecessary academic jargon, making the book an enjoyable read. In structure, it’s a straightforward biography following a linear timeline. Not having read any previous biographies of Knox, I’m not in a position to comment on whether the new material makes a significant difference to what was already known about him, but I certainly found that I learned a good deal, not just about Knox, but about the history of the Reformation in Scotland, England and Europe.

Knox dispensing the Sacrament at Calder House by Thomas Hutchison Peddie
Knox dispensing the Sacrament at Calder House
by Thomas Hutchison Peddie

Starting with his childhood, Dawson takes us through Knox’s early career as a priest within the Catholic Church and, as she does at all points, sets his story well within the context of the period. She discusses the importance of the Church in medieval society and gives the reader an overview of the political situation in Scotland and England at the time of the ‘Rough Wooing’, when Henry VIII was using military might to try to force a marriage between his son and the infant queen of Scotland. The legend, of course, is that the Scots and English were sworn enemies, but Dawson shows how those Scots who were moving towards Protestantism, including Knox, were in fact keen for an alliance with England, perhaps even a union. Therefore when France pitched in to keep Scotland Catholic, Knox found himself on the wrong side, and began an exile that would take him first to England and later to Geneva, becoming heavily involved in the development of Reformed religion in both locations.

Dawson suggests that these experiences influenced Knox deeply. He had been a disciple of George Wishart, martyred for his beliefs under Mary of Guise, Regent of Scotland, and on more than one occasion came close to achieving martyrdom himself. His hatred of Mary Tudor’s bloody persecution of English Protestants led him to expect the same in Scotland when the young Mary Stuart came to her throne. (I have to admit that if I’d had to deal with the three Marys, I might have become a misogynist myself.) It was around this time that Knox blew his First Blast, basing his case on the authority of the Old Testament, to declare that women were not fit to be rulers and should be opposed, even deposed if necessary. He had been warned by Calvin not to do this but, as always, Knox’s belief in his own unarguable rightness led him to disregard this advice.

Knox haranguing Mary Queen of Scots by Robert Inerarity Herdman
Knox haranguing Mary Queen of Scots by Robert Inerarity Herdman

Big mistake as it turned out, since Mary Tudor’s death brought Protestant Elizabeth to the throne. Thinking that he could now return to England to continue developing the Reformed Church there, Knox discovered to his surprise that for some odd reason Elizabeth had taken offence over the First Blast. It would have been a bit hard at that point for Knox to explain that it was only Catholic women who weren’t suited to rule, but anyway Dawson didn’t convince me that Knox’s First Blast was more political than misogynistic. Dawson suggests that the fact that he had many staunch female friends and supporters throughout his life, and loved both his wives, in some way refutes the accusation of misogyny. I tend to disagree – many people like cats but they don’t necessarily consider them equals. Perhaps it’s a semantic debate – perhaps he should be described as a sexist old killjoy instead.

Detail of John Knox in Edinburgh at the Reformation Wall in Geneva Photo credit: Histoire
Detail of John Knox in Edinburgh at the Reformation Wall in Geneva
Photo credit: Histoire

Having blown his chances in England, Knox answered the call to return to Scotland, where he became embroiled in the Wars of the Congregation. For a brief period after this, he was able to set the Scottish Church up to run along the Reformed lines he had been planning for years, and he believed that by accepting this the Scottish people had made a covenant with God. But he soon became disillusioned when many prominent Protestants upheld Mary’s right to rule and even to attend Catholic Mass. During the long years of ups and downs that followed, he never ceased to preach and prophesy, and never changed his core beliefs regardless of pressure and threats, which I suppose makes him admirable if not particularly likeable. In his later years, he suffered from repeated bouts of depression, believing that the covenant had been broken and that retribution would surely follow. Not against him, obviously – just his (and therefore God’s) enemies. He saw himself as God’s Watchman, constantly striving to prevent deviation from the forms of worship he believed the Bible specified, thumping his pulpit and prophesying doom on all who strayed.

Dr Jane Dawson FRSE John Laing Professor of Reformation History. Photographed with the statue of John Knox in the Quad at the School of Divinity, Edinburgh.
Dr Jane Dawson FRSE John Laing Professor of Reformation History. Photographed with the statue of John Knox in the Quad at the School of Divinity, Edinburgh.

My superficial overview doesn’t do full justice to Dawson’s book. She sheds a great deal of light on this complex and important figure, showing in depth how his interpretation of the Bible influenced every aspect of his life. She also widens the subject out to put the Scottish Reformation into context with the Protestant movement throughout Europe, showing how, despite some internal differences, there was an attempt to unify the theology and forms of worship of the fledgling religion. And she goes on to show how local circumstances led to variations in the practices of Reformed churches in different nations. Though I knew most of the historical ‘facts’ already, I certainly have a better understanding of the man, and of the Church he was so instrumental in creating. And while I can’t say I like him much better than I did, I at least accept that he acted always in conformance with his beliefs. An excellent biography and history combined – highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link